Running Compass Says: Athens Marathon 2014

Spring Break 2014. Plane was delayed. Pro: free night in Minneapolis. Con: missed Greek IV class the following morning.

My bag was a flight or two behind me, so I parked near an outlet to charge my phone and pass time by flipping through my newest issue of Runner’s World magazine. I scanned through the list of upcoming races in the back as is my habit: Vegas at Night, RunDisney, maybe Boston someday… I’ll just have to keep running my whole life so I can do all these fun races.

Then my finger landed on something unexpected: Athens Marathon. November 9. Original course of Pheidippides. The Athenian herald collapsed and died after sprinting 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens to give word of the Athenians’ surprising victory over the Persians. Hence the marathon was born.

History Me began to wind up as it united with Runner Me and became a whooping, hollering, skipping fool in an airport basement around a lot of grumpy people without their luggage. Few would have understood my ecstasy, so I didn’t pause to explain.

In three days I had my registration confirmation in my email inbox.

But the email was in Greek. So I hope it was the confirmation anyway…

Since then I have run two half marathons to keep me in shape but still rest my knees after 2013’s crazed marathoning rampage. Feeling sufficiently rested, I began training a week before I flew out for Italy this August.clv3

I didn’t know how training would be in a place with which I was not familiar. Even in places I know well, it can be difficult to find 24+-mile routes with proper hills and little vehicular traffic. What if everyone thought I was crazy? What if I was the only runner? What if the streets were dangerous at night?

Whatif whatif whatif.

I refuse to let ‘whatif’ control my life. So I set my sights on re-entering a strict training regimen.

I ran the Corri la Vita (Race for Life) last Sunday: a fundraiser for cancer research. Thousands of runners gathered between the duomo and the baptistery. I didn’t know where to line up for the 13K as opposed to the 5K, so I followed the crowd and kept my fingers crossed.

Note: a race of any length is called a ‘marathon’ in Italy, so things got a bit confusing when my host mom asked me if I wanted to run this race.

There were so many runners that I walked for parts of the first three miles. The course was beautiful: we ran up into the hills behind the Piazzale Michelangelo, which has great views of the city.

There was a man in a gray shirt and shorts, a bit shorter than myself, with a distinctive running style and a large vein on the left side of his forehead that I could see from my vantage point of…behind him, for most of the race. We passed one another several times on the 8-mile course.

The roads were narrow and had two-meter stone walls on each side, so when the crowd got tight, there was no way to get around the mob. It was a fun run for me, so I didn’t worry about it. I cruised up the last two hills and back down along the Arno into the city center. We ran through the Piazza della Repubblica and ended in the Piazza della Signoria, in front of my favorite castle tower (which, I learned in Medici class, is where Cosimo the Elder was imprisoned in 1433). A band played and there was free water (a big deal in Florence–almost as big as free bathrooms), and thousands of people milled about the square, mostly happy, friendly runners.

The man in gray had passed me with half of a kilometer left, and turning a corner I suddenly found myself stuck behind three walkers. ‘No–I can’t let him leave me behind after all this–‘ and I leapt around the runners and caught up to the man. We crossed the line in stride together, and he laughed and gave me a slap on the back–he knows what’s up. I wasn’t imagining our friendly competition.

It has been encouraging to find that Italians are quite active people. I knew they were famous for soccer and such (I’m trying to catch a home game for Florence’s team sometime this semester) but I didn’t realize athletics so permeated the daily lives of the people.

clv2

I am certainly not alone in running. In fact on some mornings, if I sleep in a little and let the Italians and the daylight catch up with me (Florentines are not morning people in general), it’s so crowded on the paths along the Arno that I feel as though I am in a race already. There are just as many female runners as male, and scores of walkers, many with dogs.

Gyms here are expensive, probably due to lack of space in a city where the buildings are hundreds of years old and difficult to renovate to fit large equipment. Despite the expense, however, many Italians are members of one gym or another. I have been intimidated by the apparent fitness of many of the Florentines with whom I rub shoulders on a daily basis. My Pilates instructor looks like he could punch through a brick wall.

Athletics and active lifestyles are greatly promoted through ads, classes for activities outside the gym, and the presence of athletic stores. Yet I am still surprised at the number of people who light up a cigarette before or after a run.

Cristina, my host mom, religiously uses Virgin Active a couple miles away. Friends of members get one free trial day, so I made the most of mine, staying for over four hours! I could have lived there–after lifting for over an hour, I swam in two of the three pools and tanned on the lawn for a while. I finished off my day with a salad from the cafeteria. If I had $450 just lying around, I would definitely sign up for a semester’s worth of this bliss.

But since I don’t, I have been ‘forced’ to find other ways of keeping in shape. I brought a jump rope with me, and that has saved me many mornings when I have already maxed my weekly mileage but my muscles are still zinging from inactivity.

You know. Zinging.

I’ve also taken up yoga and Pilates with classes through the school. Although they are not a fair replacement for my regular lifting sessions, which I miss dearly, I have noticed great improvement in my micro muscles, stability, and flexibility.

My newest workout craze is pushups: I took on the ‘100 pushups/day’ challenge for the month of October. I just heard about it this morning: I’m only 40 into my 100 as I write late at night, but I’ll get them in! Who’s with me?

Scuola – LdM ‘the Magnificent’

Lorenzo de’ Medici Institute was named for Lorenzo the Magnificent, a ruler of Florence from the famous Medici family during the Renaissance era; also one of my historical heroes. Besides being a wise and cunning ruler, Lorenzo was also a great patron of the arts, and belonged to a group of people referred to as ‘humanists’: those leaders of the time who supported the ‘rebirth’ and flowering of art, literature, philosophy, religion, science, etc. after the Dark Ages.

And, like most of my heroes, Lorenzo was a skilled with horses and a brave in war.

Marry me, please.

photo

I am moving into my second week of school, and as of my first glance, my classes are proving to be no less ‘Magnificent’ than their namesake.

History this semester is, not surprisingly, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Medici,’ following the family from the 15th to the 17th century. I’m stoked, to say the least. My professor, Romana Priessler, is tall and beautiful with a face of a carved marble Roman statue brought to life. She makes no expression while she speaks ever so slowly, except the faintest hint of a smile when she says:

‘My English is not so great, and you may correct me if you like. But I will correct you on Medici.’

(Italians draw out the first syllable: ‘MAY-de-chi.’)

My history class goes hand-in-hand with my art class, “The Built Environment of Florence.”

(Concordia said I need an art class to graduate anyway, so why not take it in Florence?)

Florence above

This class, taught by Elisabetta Morici, will mostly cover architecture during the Renaissance period, although our first introductory class was mostly a lecture about the beginnings of the city. It was founded by the Romans and was called ‘Florentia,’ and was built in the valley near the Arno River, where it is today. The native and peace-loving Etruscans were forced up into the hills and settled there.

Florentia can still be seen today: our professor pulled up a map of modern Florence, showed us which roads were Roman, and pointed out where the forum and the amphitheater once stood. The roads still exist, cutting right angles through a city mostly comprised of curving, winding, narrow, crazy-Italian-driver-infested streets. The forum is now the Piazza dell’ Repubblica; I pass near it on my way to school each day. And the remains of the amphitheater can be seen in the steeply slanted road I hike up to get to class; my feet are passing over hundreds of seats now covered by paved roads.

With a half hour left of class, Professor Morici was teaching about the Byzantine walls and towers (over the years, Florence had seven different layers of protective walls built; these were the second set, built just after the fall of the Roman Empire).

In one fluid motion she shut down the computer and grabbed her small leather bag.

‘Let’s go look at them,’ she said.

With wide eyes, all 25 students stood and followed her silently as she led us outside, around the San Lorenzo church, through the Piazza dell’ Repubblica, and down a narrow alleyway.

This is why I am studying abroad, I thought. I peeked at the syllabus: almost every class period in this course will include some type of walking tour or museum/church visit.

hotel-brunelleschi

Suddenly the street opened up to a small square where several couples were sitting down to lunch, and behind them stood the Torre della Pagliazza, now the Hotel Brunelleschi (rooms start at 950 euro per night–I checked).

There is a small museum in the basement of the original foundations of the tower, too small to take a class of 25. So I returned yesterday and went by myself.

Francecso Petrini is a character. (I’m giving their names mostly for my own benefit, I think–I love the way Italian names roll off my tongue…) Unlike Professor Priessler, Petrini moves his entire face, no, his entire body, when he lectures in class. His accent is quite thick, but it makes me pay attention. Between wild hand motions and the use of the chalkboard, I can usually figure out what he’s talking about.

He teaches my ‘Age of Heroes’ literature class, in which we will be studying Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and a little of Virgil’s Aeneid. I’ve read the lattermost in its entirety, and loved it, though I am ashamed as a history major to say I have never completely read the other two. But I will soon!

All of my professors, but Professor Petrini in particular, stress that they are not Catholic. For so many years, my education has been specifically Christian, and I have caught myself on more than one occasion assuming that is true for all education.  I find it interesting that the professors still adhere to the religious principles of Catholicism, and Petrini even took a large chunk of our class period to make it clear he believed Jesus, whether God or not, was undoubtedly a historical figure. I suppose it is natural for the mind to seek some type of moral compass.

Ornella Pettini teaches my Italian Language class. After one week I can ask someone, ‘How do you say —– in Italian?’ And I can say ‘To be or not to be,’ mostly as a practice for Italian verbs. I don’t think Italians actually walk around saying that .

But I was proud of myself the other day when a random Alessandro sat down next to me outside the Tribunale while I was studying, and I was able to make minimal conversation  with him about the weather and the day of the week.

I can also say ‘vino.’ That’s important.